In my last post, I talked about the different ways to express feelings with music. There was one aspect that I decided was big enough to have its own blog post: The effect that different instruments have on us. As I already mentioned, how we relate to music isn’t an exact science because it affects us all differently. However, there are some common elements among pieces of music that might seem familiar. After all, Sergei Prokofiev chose individual instruments to represent different animals and characters:
- Bird as a flute
- Cat as a clarinet
- Duck as an oboe
- Grandfather as a bassoon
- Peter as Strings (from Peter and The Wolf)
- Wolf as a French Horn
I’m sure you can immediately accept the bassoon as representative of the grandfather, or the flute as representative of the bird, but why? Well, I have a few answers that might help you out. The amplitude range of the instrument, the pitch, the richness of the harmony, and the associations with life experiences among others create natural connections between instruments and animate objects.
Back when I was in music college, we completed a cool exercise where we needed to choose three animals and compose music for each. The first animal, the snake, was easy; I went with an ethnic association and used an alt flute while playing harmonic minor scales with some Arabic scales. The class immediately guessed correctly.
You can hear the snake here:
For the second animal, the frog, I played a jumpy, rude melody with the baritone sax while in the background there was a response arpeggio played by a harp. Once again the class guessed correctly, helped by the fact that the baritone represented the frog while the harp represented the lake.
You can hear the frog here:
I imagined the sounds of the last animal, the bat, by creating a deep cave-like atmosphere with some low contrabass tones, and the bats were played by high strings doing random fast slides and staccato piccolo notes. The piece was accompanied by a strong reverb effect to enhance the cave atmosphere. This animal was a little hard to guess, but my classmates got it eventually :-).
You can hear the bats here:
After doing some research, I have found what people believe each of the following instruments represents in terms of emotions and characteristics.
- In general, live instruments are warm and electronic instruments are mostly cold and more melancholic.
- A piano can be mellow and can represent contentment or, from another angle, romance.
- French horns represent nobility, accomplishment, loneliness, and solitude.
- The trumpet, trombone, and other brass instruments represent excitement and energy.
- The violin and other string instruments represent cold, sadness, tranquility, sympathy, fragility, and joy (Vivaldi’s “Spring” for instance).
- A distorted guitar represents power, aggression, and strength, while a “clean” electric guitar is used to symbolize anguish and solitude.
- An acoustic guitar means humility and contentment.
- A pipe organ represents power, fury, rage, and overwhelming joy (as in various Bach compositions).
- A square-wave synth (like the one used in Pink Floyd’s "Welcome to the Machine") means complexity, chaos, speed, and sophistication.
- A marimba represents happy music and, finally, a solo cello equals sadness.
And now it's your turn: what associations and emotions do the above (and other) instruments make you feel?